I didn’t expect to be awake at this late hour, but I have some horrible news to report, and write out of my system. In a hotel room, while on holiday in Rome, Italy, on June 19th, James Gandolfini has left this world. It is apparently a massive heart attack that did him in. I’m still trying to make the news register, while at the same time fighting against the cold reality of it. He was fifty-one years old. It’s strange the way people, especially celebrities (and more especially, the extremely talented, genius ones at that) can connect with you through their art in a way that makes their death resonate in the way typically reserved for that of a well known friend, or in rarer cases, a family member.
This isn’t one of the latter cases for me. Roger Ebert’s death was, earlier this year, as was Bruce Springsteen’s saxophonist Clarence Clemon’s passing a few years ago, as I had invested far more time into the writing of one, and the music of the other than I have watching Gandolfini’s acting work, but all the same, when any field loses one of its true masters, the reverberations go out far and wide. And to be sure, this definitely struck me with a cold and harsh thud that I’d usually associate with the loss of a much valued acquaintance or a long lost friend who I had not seen in quite some time. I never met James Gandolfini, but from what I’ve read and seen over the years, I liked him quite a bit.
He was, of course, a brilliant actor. What I liked about him, perhaps unconsciously, more than that was the way he handled himself. He wasn’t reclusive, in the hermitic sense of the word, but he was a man who never allowed the cult of celebrity to invade his private life. I’m sure much will come out now in the Tabloid press that he has passed on, as it always does, but while he was around, (And hopefully for all time, regardless of whatever salacious articles the coffin chasers will write) he was able to maintain his dignity.
He shunned most interviews and interviewers, and when he gave them, it was usually nothing major to chew on, just the essential facts he wanted to get out. I recall him once saying in an article something to the effect (I have tried and failed to find the quote, but it was around the time the Sopranos wrapped up and he was promoting a new independent movie he had out) of you don’t go asking the average Joe how he does his job, so why bother me? That’s how Gandolfini viewed his remarkable gifts it seems, a job, that, like all jobs, has its ups and downs.
The Sopranos was the first television show that I can remember being truly obsessed over. Without Gandolfini’s intense presence and remarkable acting talents that show would not have been half as powerful as it was. Without what Gandolfini and David Chase accomplished with The Sopranos, there is no doubt in my mind that the world would be deprived, not only of that tremendous piece of culture, but also shows like The Wire, Mad Men, and Breaking Bad, who came in through the door that The Sopranos opened up. For a more in depth look at this, I recommend everyone go and see Alan Sepinwall’s book “The Revolution Was Televised “…
Aside from his groundbreaking work on The Sopranos that he was most well known for, Gandolfini also had memorable roles in movies like Quentin Tarintino’s debut writing effort ‘True Romance’ where he was first noticed, the underrated ‘The Last Castle’ with Robert Redford, and the Brad Pitt and Julia Robert’s vehicle ‘The Mexican’ where he played a gay bounty hunter. He also starred with Pitt in 2012 in the mob drama ‘Killing Them Softly’ and played the CIA director in the Oscar winning ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ last year, as well as many other roles in a career spanning three decades. It was always weird for me hearing him speak in his natural voice instead of his thick Tony Soprano accent that came so much to be associated with him. He was well aware of this in fact, and utilized it in one of the Sopranos famous dream sequences in its last season.
James Gandolfini was a diamond in the rough. He could tell a story, and a good one at that, with just the sadness, or anger, of his eyes. Now the intense burning light behind those eyes has been snuffed out, and it’s a damned tragedy, both on the personal level for those that knew the man, and on a broader scope, the scores of fans who admired his work. He will be forever remembered as the brooding and intense mob boss, Tony Soprano, but with more time, and the right script, I have no doubt Gandolfini could have brought that same passion and intensity to another perhaps equally iconic role, but now, sadly, we will never get to see him do that. So it goes.
In the end, Gandolfini was in real life, the man his fictional counterpart on the Sopranos so desired to be, a strong, silent type, in the tradition of Gary Cooper. He wasn’t flashy, or fancy. He was very much an “everyman” in appearance, and that was part of his great appeal, too. He seemed like the kind of guy you could see yourself having a beer with down at the local bar and just having an hour long or so cordial conversation about your children.
In the wake of this, and in honor of James Gandolfini, and also just because it’s such a damn good piece of television entertainment, I plan on sometime this summer, re-watching ‘The Sopranos’ in its entirety, and I may even do a season by season review of the show as well here on the blog, but for now, I am simply going to bed, depressed and tired. I also plan on cutting down on junk food and soda, as a bigger guy myself, there is nothing more terrifying to me than the threat of a sudden massive heart attack someday, and every time I hear of one, I make this very same pledge. Maybe this will be the one to do it. Anyway, here’s hoping the rule of three will not be in effect here, as this year has already taken enough of the people we need from us.